11 Things You Didn't Know About James Beard: The Father of American Cooking

James Beard may be a household name, but here are some surprising facts you may not know about the cooking legend

11 Things You Didn't Know About James Beard: The Father of American Cooking

Dubbed “The Dean of American Cookery” by The New York Times, James Beard is a culinary legend. As the premier gastronome in the United States, his name is synonymous with quality American cooking.

Being invited to cook in the tiny kitchen at his old residence, a townhouse located in New York City's West Village neighborhood that is now home to the James Beard Foundation, is considered a real honor for chefs around the world, and American chefs, restaurateurs, television personalities, and writers vie every year for the recognition of their peers as expressed by the highly coveted James Beard Awards. Even the chance to dine at the house is looked on as something truly special .

Even younger food business professionals and just plain food-lovers know Beard's name today, through the Beard House dinners and the annual awards, but how much do they really know about this giant of gastronomy, born more than a century ago, and his immense influence on modern American cooking?  

1. He was a large man

1.He was a large man

Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons/ Bill Golladay CC BY-SA 4.0

His biography reports that he weighed 13 or 14 pounds at birth, grew to be 6 feet 4 inches tall, and weighed 310 pounds at his heaviest. Many have commented on his grandeur and, uh, corpulence. (“He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands,” Julia Child once wrote.) The celebrated New York Times restaurant critic noted that "Physically he was the connoisseur's connoisseur. He was a giant panda, Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant rolled into one.”  

2. He was from Oregon

2.	He was from Oregon


Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903. When he died in 1985, his ashes were scattered over a beach on the Oregon coast where he spent his childhood summers.  

3. He was gay

Beard came out publicly in his autobiography, writing, "By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay.” He was expelled from Reed College in 1922 because of his homosexuality. The university apologized in 1976 by endowing Beard with an honorary degree.

4. He was a failed actor and opera singer

4.	He was a failed actor and opera singer


From a young age, Beard had a penchant for the arts. He was heavily involved in theater at Reed College before heading to France with the goal of becoming an opera singer. In 1937, Beard moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. He was ultimately unsuccessful (which is a good thing for us) and began a catering company in 1937 named Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc. Not coincidentally, Hors d’Oeuvre & Canapés was the title of his first cookbook, published in 1940. 

5. He was a prolific author

Over the course of his illustrious career, Beard wrote 20 books.

6. He was a philanthropist

Along with New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene, Beard founded Citymeals On Wheels, an organization that works to feed New York City's homebound elderly. The organization is still running today, and last year it gave more than 2 million meals to more than 18,000 elderly persons in New York City.  

7. He was a bit of an exhibitionist

Today, when dining at the James Beard House, guests actually have to step past what was once was an outdoor shower, which overlooked the garden in full view of his neighbors.  His bed also was placed by the large front window on the second level of his three-story home and was notably adorned with a mirrored ceiling. Although the bed is gone, many guests have eaten their meals under that iconic ceiling. 

8. He was great friends with Julia Child

Quite possibly one of the greatest culinary friendships of all time, Julia Child met Beard around the time of the release of her famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961. She was instrumental in preserving his house after his death, and Child fondly said of her friend, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”

9. He had the first-ever televised cooking show in America

In 1946, Beard starred in the live NBC television cooking show I Love to Eat, marking the start of his rise as the premier authority on American food and food culture. (The first TV cook was Philip Harben, a Royal Air Force veteran who launched a BBC show called "Cookery" a few months before Beard's onscreen debut.)

10. His legacy remains relevant, extensive, and impressive

The James Beard Foundation was established just after his death in 1986. Not only does his house welcome the world’s best chefs to cook more than 250 dinners a year, but the awards established in his honor are often called “the Oscars of the food world,” and recipients receive bronze medallions etched with his image. The foundation has also established an educational scholarship program to support aspiring students in multiple areas of food and culinary studies.

11. He loved tarragon

11.	He loved tarragon


Beard said, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."